I have liked some of M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales/Pals in Peril books better than others. (I know I'm nitpicking on this, but the name of the series changed for some reason.) I had to be won over by the first book, Whales on Stilts, but the second one, The Clue of of the Linoleum Lederhosen, was a hit. The third one I read (there are supposed to be six; I seem to have missed a couple), Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware wasn't a favorite. But the final book in the series, He Laughed with His Other Mouths, is an absolute gem.
The basic premise for all these books: A Tom Swift-type character named Jaspar Dash and a spunky girl (younger and spunkier than
the 1930's era Nancy Drew) existed in their own book worlds
that reflected the eras that created them, the 1920s/30s and the 1980s/90s. And yet, at the same time, they are existing in our own twenty-first century where Jaspar, in particular, is both having adventures but out of place.
In He Laughed with His Other Mouths, Jaspar is now that classic/stereotypical character, the young male in search of his father. Jaspar will go to the ends of the universe in search of dear old dad. He will accept some pretty outlandish behavior from his father figure. However, Jaspar is a young hero, and he recognizes evil when he sees it. Maybe he doesn't recognize it right away and maybe he needs a little push from his spunky girl companions, but he does recognize and behave as a hero should.
All of the books that I've read in this series operate on more than one level. You have the basic contemporary adventure. You have characters from an older book world trying to function in a contemporary one. You have the knowledge that children who are now old, if not dead, read the older books back when they were new and shiny.
With He Laughed with His Other Mouths, Anderson does something quite marvelous with footnotes. Using footnotes for witty asides has become a cliche since Terry Pratchett perfected doing that back in the day. But Anderson uses his clever footnotes not to be witty but to tell another story entirely, this one about a kid during World War II who was a Jaspar Dash fan. This is a complete story, a piece of serious historical fiction embedded in a fantasy satire/comedy.
As with all these books that I've read, I wonder how much of this wonderful stuff child readers will understand. Assuming they enjoy the layer with the contemporary adventure, will they get the jokes that are part of it? Will they get the nostalgic elements?
Kid readers aside, for those of us who do get He Laughed with His Other Mouths, it's pretty damn brilliant.
He Laughed with His Other Mouths is a Cybils nominee in the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category.